Andrew Knowlton, the restaurant editor and “Foodist” for Bon Appétit, has been with the magazine for over a decade and in that time he has seen some big trends come and go on the dining scene.
Recently, he went on a 120-day, 22-state binge to assess the country’s best new restaurants for himself. Along the way, he checked out everything from bars to bathrooms – so we asked him to clue us in on what’s hot, and what’s as over as Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys.
Andrew Knowlton: When you sit down at the bar… you know, a few years ago it was all about “Ye Old Americana Tavern,” where everything was just wood —
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, I have a theory there’s no more wood to reclaim in all of the United States.
Andrew Knowlton: — Vermont is basically… There’s no barns left in Vermont.
Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s like a desert right now.
Andrew Knowlton: So now, we’re going very Venetian in a way. It’s just all marble. I would say… I don’t know, 60% of the bars that I sat at were marble. And very clean, classic lines. It almost feels like you’re in Italy at some amazing hotel bar.
And then with that Olde Tavern wood look, you had the Edison light bulbs… which you can see the filament —
Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s right, that kind of dim, orangey glow….
Andrew Knowlton: — Right, and you can see right through them. And they’re beautiful, but they obviously got abused.
So now it’s more of the pendant lighting, which is kind of just very simple, almost something you would buy at an Ikea or something. It hangs on the electrical line. Those were kind of everywhere this year.
Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, so you’re at the bar and you’re gonna order a drink. You said the PBR can has gone the way of the dodo.
Andrew Knowlton: The PBR can is done, thank God. I’ve been waiting for that.
Brendan Francis Newnam: That was an awful era.
Andrew Knowlton: So, it’s two things: It’s large-format bottles, and that goes for both wine and beer.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So we’re talking magnums?
Andrew Knowlton: We’re talking magnums and jeroboams, and all these old biblical names.
Brendan Francis Newnam: A jeroboam is a thing?
Andrew Knowlton: A jeroboam, a Nebuchadnezzar, yeah. No — so large format… and then the curious thing is the huge 32 and 40-ounce bottles of beer that are popping up.
Brendan Francis Newnam: For an individual?
Andrew Knowlton: For an individual. And usually it’s the best deal, and if you’re eating, like, tacos it makes sense. But you’re ordering it at some restaurant charging $25 for an entree, and you’re having a 40-ounce of Pacifico!
So I think it’s making it just much more casual. Like you know, fine dining — or just dining — 15 years ago, you never would have seen that.
Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, you’ve had some drinks, now let’s go to some of the food you’ve been seeing. The first image in this issue of Bon Appétit, in this trend section, is a fish head.
Andrew Knowlton: It’s a fish head.
Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s the last frontier.
Andrew Knowlton: It’s kind of what was going on with pig a few years ago — using every part. Now they’re using the collar of fish, the head…
Brendan Francis Newnam: Which is actually really tasty.
Andrew Knowlton: Oh it’s delicious. I mean you pick up a head and you eat it like it’s a rib. And it’s delicious. Look, it’s an economical way… they’re usually throwing away the heads or using it for a stock, so now they can charge us for it. But it’s delicious. I mean, at Chez Sardine in New York they do a maple miso salmon head, which is amazing.
Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, so also, you mentioned pork, which has been king for a while. You did see a Calabrian pork paste?
Andrew Knowlton: Yeah: ‘Nduja. It’s kind of the root… you’ve heard of “Andouille?”
Brendan Francis Newnam: The sausage, yeah.
Andrew Knowlton: Yes, so I think [the word] kind of came from that.
Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s like the filling [of the sausage].
Andrew Knowlton: ‘Nduja – yeah, so it’s kind of the filling – but in Southern Italy it’s this paste that they make, almost like you would get chicken liver in a jar. It has really spicy Calabrian chilies in it, and you just spread it on toast.
And traditionally it’s made with kidneys, but thankfully they’re leaving that out — kidney is the one food that I will not eat — so they’ve left that out…
Brendan Francis Newnam: Why won’t you eat kidneys?
Andrew Knowlton: I think it’s partly because my dad is a nephrologist, which is a kidney doctor! But it’s also like… it tastes like urine to me. There’s something about the texture.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Isn’t that like psychosomatic though? I mean does it really…
Andrew Knowlton: I don’t know. There’s some deep stuff there.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re like, “I’m not gonna find out, either.”
Andrew Knowlton: That’s just how it is.
Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, so, you write a little bit about this. What trends are you seeing in America’s restaurant bathrooms?
Andrew Knowlton: Yeah,I spent more time in bathrooms at restaurants this year than I care to admit, and not for the reason that you’re probably thinking.
Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s a little personal.
Andrew Knowlton: Not for the reason you’re thinking! Only because of the design. It used to be kind of this throwaway thought, but now from one place to the next I just walked in and was like, “This is the coolest bathroom I’ve ever been in.” From like, amazing soap that was developed for them by some, you know, Amish soap maker…
Brendan Francis Newnam: So you’re seeing better soaps…
Andrew Knowlton: …Better soaps…
Brendan Francis Newnam: Unisex bathrooms?
Andrew Knowlton: …Unisex bathrooms. You know, separate stalls, but we all wash our hands in the same place.
Brendan Francis Newnam: That’ll be next year maybe.
Andrew Knowlton: That’ll be next year. And then, the other thing that’s cool is they have a different soundtrack in bathrooms. A lot of times you’re kind of in the groove of eating, you’re listening to music, whatever, you’re having a conversation.
Then you go to this brightly lit room and it’s kind of a buzzkill and there’s no music. And this kind of this continuation of the restaurant experience.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I just saw my future: I’m a bathroom DJ.
Andrew Knowlton: Bathroom DJ, there you go!
Brendan Francis Newnam: That would be amazing.
Andrew Knowlton: You’d have rougher nights than others, I’m sure.
Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s a kind of a niche job, I feel like I could own that space.
Andrew Knowlton: Let me know how that goes.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.
Andrew Knowlton: So I think the whole bathroom thing is just a continuation of the kind of emphasis that chefs and restaurateurs are putting on the dining experience now.
There was a few years there that we kind of stuck it to the customer. Like it was: “I’m the chef and you’re gonna sit on this log in the forest, and I’m gonna charge $150 for it.”And I think both chefs and customers kind of were like, “Okay, this is kind of silly.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, like “Wait a second, we’re giving you hundreds of dollars.”
Andrew Knowlton: Yes, “So let’s bring back the creature comforts of dining out.” And I think we’re seeing that in dining in America this year.